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Scratching Cotton

February 5, 2013

This is another excerpt from my first book, From Sharecropper’s Son to Tracking Missiles.” The story is about scratching cotton during the summer of 1948.

West Texas dry land farming in 1948 was backbreaking work. Most of my family had switched to tractors, which made life easier. Much more land could be plowed with a tractor than with a mule, but a lot of hand work was still required.

One of my uncles had a tractor, but still used a mule for some tasks. When the cotton sprouts were ready to break through the surface to sunlight, the dry, baked dirt was too hard to allow the sprouts to break through. The crust had to be scratched.

Rather than buy a new implement that would scratch the surface behind a tractor, my uncle used a rig that he had built years before. He had several 2×12 boards with nails driven through and protruding about an inch. The boards were weighted with large rocks. A harness was attached to the rig. A mule could pull the four-row rig.

My cousin and I would take turns riding that old mule, bareback, pulling the scratching rig. One of us would ride down the quarter-mile row and back. Then the other would take a turn. One advantage to using a mule was that all you had to do was line up the mule and it would go straight to the other end. You hardly had to guide it, except to turn around and line up again. The one not riding, would rest in the shade of a Mesquite tree. Of course, Mesquite trees did not shade the west Texas sun very well.

It took a couple of days to scratch my uncle’s cotton field. The young cotton sprouts began breaking through on the first rows we scratched by the time we finished the field on the second day. Within another day or two the field was covered with young cotton plants. We also scratched a couple of neighbor’s fields for $1 per day, which my cousin and I shared.

  My uncle always had an old hunting dog with him. One time we were riding in the back of the pickup and the hunting dog was in the back with us. Sunflowers were growing high from the ditch alongside the road. As we barreled down the road, the sunflowers were slapping the side of the pickup.

The dog started barking and snapping at the sunflowers. Finally, the dog caught a sunflower in his mouth. Instantly, the dog flew out of the pickup and was in the road behind us.

We banged on the cab and got my uncle to stop. The dog caught up with us and jumped in the back of the pickup. He lay down beside my cousin and didn’t snap at any more sunflowers.

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